Leading anti-hunger advocates are fasting to protest U.S. budget-cutting proposals that could threaten some of the world's most vulnerable people.
The budget passed by the House of Representatives includes deep cuts to programs aimed at alleviating hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world. These reductions follow an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts which benefit the nation's wealthiest people.
"We just think that's wrong," says World Food Prize winner David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger group Bread for the World. He vows to only drink water for a week to protest the proposed cuts.
Beckmann is especially concerned about a 40 percent reduction in emergency food aid for disaster victims and refugees - from $1.7 billion last year to $1 billion in the house budget.
"If that would actually happen, we think it would mean cutting off something like 18 million people around the world who depend on food aid," he says. "These are some of the most desperate people in the world."
The protest has been joined by more than 30 organizations, including Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular groups. Organizers say about 4,000 people are fasting for varying periods of time.
Former Congressman Tony Hall is leading the effort. In 1993, Hall fasted for 22 days to call attention to what he called Congress's lack of conscience toward poor and hungry people.
School meals, small farmers targeted
This year, the house proposed cutting in half a $200-million school meal program for children in developing countries.
"If you picture yourself in a classroom of 20 kids - often times this is the only meal they receive in the day - in essence we would walk into that classroom and pick out 10 kids we would no longer feed," says Rick Leach, president of the World Food Program USA, one of the groups supporting the protest.
And at a time of rising food prices, U.S. development aid aimed at helping improve small farmers' productivity is slated for a 30 percent cut. Nutrition programs targeting the critical first 1,000 days of a child's life would be cut 16 percent.
Leach says Congress can choose one of two paths: "One leads to a comprehensive approach to address hunger. The other leads to historic cuts that have never been seen, never ever been proposed like this by an administration, by a Congress. The effort to address global hunger has always had strong bipartisan support."
Republicans took control of the House of Representatives this year, promising to make deep budget cuts. Republicans contacted for this story were not available for comment.
But many have said that the United States simply cannot afford to spend the money on foreign aid at a time when the nation is $14 trillion in debt. Some have complained about waste and corruption in countries receiving U.S. aid.
Bread for the World's David Beckmann agrees the United States needs to reduce its deficit. But he says there are ways to do that without cutting programs for the poor and vulnerable.
"Right now there seems to be this taboo on raising anybody's taxes," he says. "But it's crazy not to raise taxes for millionaires but to throw kids out of preschool or to cut off the supply of food aid to refugee camps."
There is currently little appetite in Congress for raising taxes. But the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected the deep cuts in the Republican-controlled House budget.
Negotiations are under way to reach a compromise. Observers say cuts to many programs are likely, but the depth and scope are very much under debate.